December 5, 2016

Coping with the winter blues

For some people, shorter days mean more than just the beginning of fall. They can also signal the onset of seasonal affective disorder, or the "winter blues."

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is a form of depression that occurs seasonally. While it commonly affects individuals during the winter months, some may experience it during the summer.

"It's likely to be Seasonal Affective Disorder when a person is feeling down or experiences a loss of interest or pleasure in things they used to enjoy most of the day for at least two weeks during a particular season," said UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD.

Looking for patterns is key to identifying SAD. Individuals should try to consider whether they are typically down for periods of time every fall or winter, or is there perhaps a life-event that might be causing a period of stress?

"Look at time of year, severity of symptoms and any patterns over time, particularly over the previous two years," said Mirgain. "And, while we say symptoms have to last at least two weeks, for many individuals the condition can linger throughout the season and even become progressively worse."

Symptoms of seasonal depression

There are further ways individuals can help distinguish between just feeling down and SAD. Individuals with SAD might experience:

  • Feelings of sadness that linger for at least two weeks

  • Fatigue

  • Concentration problems

  • Sleep problems

  • Weight gain

  • Feeling sluggish

  • Sense of helplessness or hopelessness

Some individuals might actually experience the opposite, with feelings of hyperactivity and unintentional weight loss instead.

Approximately 4-6 percent of the U.S. population experience SAD, while 10-20 percent have a milder form, with the greatest percentage occurring in more northern climates.

"Length of day and colder weather seem to be a factor in triggering the condition," said Mirgain.

SAD seems to be more common in younger people, including 18- to 30-year-olds. And, as with depression, women seem to be at a greater risk. However, Mirgain said that might be because women tend to see the doctor more frequently when they are experiencing problems.

Treating the depression

Depending on the severity of symptoms, different forms of treatment can prove helpful. One of the most effective is exercise.

"Exercise has been shown to reduce depression and help prevent it in the future, and research shows it can be as effective as medication," said Mirgain. "To gain the most benefit, exercise at least three times a week for at least a half hour at a time."

Mirgain added that exercising outside provides the added benefit of exposure to natural sunlight. Because the shortened daylight hours during fall and winter can disrupt natural circadian rhythms, exposure to light can be beneficial. Light therapy has also been proven to be effective for certain individuals with SAD.

"The majority of individuals can benefit from light therapy, but it may not be appropriate for those with certain health conditions or who are on medication," said Mirgain.

Before using light therapy, Mirgain recommends individuals speak with their physician. Not everyone will respond to the treatment. While results will usually be seen quickly - within three days to two weeks - continued use is also key.

For individuals who find they have lingering feelings of being down, or not interested in things they used to be, it might be time to speak with a physician. And especially if the symptoms are disruptive or there are thoughts of suicide.

"There is help available, including therapy and medication. It's important to speak with a physician to help figure out the most appropriate treatment for you," said Mirgain.